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      Why Are So Many Black People Being Convicted of Drug Dealing in London?

      February 3, 2016
      From the column 'Narcomania'

      Undercover cop Neil Woods (left) buying crack. Photo from "Inside the Secret World of a British Undercover Drugs Cop"

      This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

      Nearly half of all people convicted for class A drug supply in London are black, according to previously unpublished data seen by VICE.

      Figures released to VICE under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that 42 percent of people convicted for selling class A drugs in the capital are black, a proportion that rises to 50 percent for drug dealers under age 21.

      According to the 2011 census, just over 10 percent of people living in London are black, while just under 60 percent are white. However, three times as many black people under 21 are convicted of class A drug supply than white people under 21. Around three-quarters of class A drug supply convictions result in custody.

      These new figures come a couple of days after Prime Minister David Cameron announced a review into the treatment of ethnic minorities by the criminal justice system, pointing out that a young black man in the UK is more likely to be in prison than at a top university.

      The data released to VICE shows that black people are over-represented nationally when it comes to drug supply convictions. While making up just three percent of the UK population, black people account for 20 percent of all class A drug supply convictions.

      The data, which covers convictions for 2013 and 2014, also reflects the expansion by London drug gangs into other parts of the country. They show high numbers of black drug dealing convictions in the southeast and east of England, as gangs send young sellers to "go country" and take advantage of commuter belt markets.

      It's not just at the lower levels of the drug trade that black people are over-represented. Of the 567 people convicted for class A drug importation over 2013 and 2014, 120 were black, compared to 132 white and 55 Asian. Almost all of those convicted were arrested in London and the southeast of England.

      The region-by-region data obtained through the FOIA request provides an exclusive insight into the age and ethnicity of people making a living in the drug trade in England and Wales. The further you travel north, away from London, Bristol, and Birmingham, the number of black drug dealing convictions peters out.

      In the north, those found guilty of drug dealing are overwhelmingly white, a reflection of the more extensive network of white crime groups in cities such as Newcastle, Liverpool, and Manchester.

      The northwest hosts the highest number of class B (chiefly, cannabis and speed) selling convictions in the country, as well as the most people found guilty of producing class B drugs (almost entirely cannabis grows).

      Importation convictions are highest in London, the southeast and the northwest, a reflection of the importance of these areas as hubs of trafficking and onward distribution within the UK.

      The data raises important questions about why a disproportionate number of black people are ending up in the dock for dealing drugs. VICE has spoken to a number of experts—including former drug dealers and specialists in the drug trade—to seek an explanation for this phenomenon.

      Their responses on the following pages suggest the figures are being driven by a number of factors, such as social exclusion, biased policing, gang culture, and cultural links to the cocaine trade.

      It appears that the high representation of black people in the drug supply statistics, particularly at the business end—the heroin and crack market, which has a far higher risk of injury or arrest than any other drugs—is a reflection of three main drivers:


      Young black men have a higher unemployment rate than all other ethnic groups—more than double the rate for young white men. In 2012, government statistics showed that more than half of young black men available for work in Britain were unemployed. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, black ethnic groups have worse labor market outcomes regardless of whether they live in better-off or deprived neighborhoods.

      As John Pitts, director of the Vauxhall Centre for the Study of Crime, told me in 2011: "To someone who is struggling at school, who has a cold, hard home life with few prospects, it's dangerous, it's exciting, and it's a step up the ladder. You have escalating youth unemployment and a lack of those opportunities. In today's drug business you could be earning, with relatively little effort, £500 [about $700] a week. The old ways of reasoning with young offenders—all that is now gone."

      Analysis of the motivations of those who took part in the 2011 riots in London and elsewhere in England revealed a similar narrative: The rioters, most of them young black men, said they were driven by social exclusion and economic deprivation, combined with a strong sense of injustice. They were poorer, younger, and of lower educational achievement than average.

      Drug dealing is a logical solution to a problem for many of the world's urban poor. Some of those locked out of the mainstream economy turn to one of the biggest illegal economies: the drug trade.

      It's the same story the world over. In towns and cities across every continent, there are hundreds of thousands of people who are using the drug trade as a way to escape a dead end life, and indeed, widespread social inequality. A study into the drug market in New Orleans, published in the Journal of Ethnicity in Substance Abuse in 2010, found "a clear connection between poverty and entrance into the drug market, as mitigated by race, lack of societal opportunity, lack of social capital, distressed families, and closed neighborhoods. Specifically, the research illustrates the mechanisms by which macro-level social forces intersect to legitimize drug dealing as a viable alternative method of acquiring money and social capital."

      Some people are coerced into the drug trade. But for most, access is relatively easy and socially acceptable, often through family or friends. Either way, once you get on it's hard to get off. Political campaigner Kenny Imafidon, 22, who grew up on an estate in Peckham and did his A levels in Feltham prison described this in The Kenny Report, a 2012 publication handed into Parliament to raise awareness of the challenges faced by young people from deprived areas:

      "Many young black people at the age of 16 are aware of the economic climate and the lack of legitimate career opportunities, so can often be lured into illegal ways of making money such as selling drugs, particularly if they are living in an area where this is an accessible and viable option. Young people in deprived communities who obtain criminal convictions by the age of 16 believe that no one is going to employ them anyway and therefore commit to ongoing criminality."

      Societies that combine social inequality and consumerism cannot be surprised that people who have no opportunities want to find another way of buying the things that everyone else seems to have.


      There is no doubt the police target black people for stop and search, therefore making them more likely to be caught if they are carrying quantities of drugs deemed high enough to warrant arrest for supply. Despite a clampdown on discriminatory stop and searches ordered by Home Secretary Theresa May, which has dramatically reduced the practice, black people in London are still three times more likely to be frisked than white people, rising to 17 times more likely in some parts of England.

      Black people are also three times as likely than white people to be arrested and prosecuted. This is reflected in the prison statistics, with significant rises in the proportion of young black and Asian people being locked up. A report—led by Baroness Young and published last year—into the high numbers of young black men in prison found that one of the reasons behind the rise is that black offenders "are stereotyped as drug dealers."


      The reason so many black people are being convicted for class A drug selling, predominantly for selling heroin and crack, has its origins 20 years ago, with the rise of the crack cocaine market in Britain. The first crack importers and suppliers were British Jamaican gangs who used existing friendships and supply lines from the Caribbean to import cocaine and wash it up into crack.

      Because of its short, intense high and need for users to buy repeat hits, crack became a lucrative trade. Dealers began selling it alongside heroin, and the two drugs virtually became one—a first course and a main course—with some users combining "white" and "brown" in the same syringe, known as a speedball.

      By its very nature, the crack and heroin trade—particularly when it comes to the young runners who carry out the transactions—is far more visible to the police than the trade in other class A drugs. It's a lot tougher to avoid arrest if you're serving up to heroin users on a notorious estate than passing a few bags around in a noisy, dimly-lit nightclub.

      Below is a number of opinions from criminologists, a former crack and heroin dealer, and a couple of former international cocaine traffickers.

      A former heroin and crack dealer

      I was selling heroin and crack on my estate in Tooting from the age of 11 to 20. I've been in prison six times, the longest stretch was five years. I got out and I'm now studying a sociology and economics degree at university.

      Yes, there is institutional racism in the police, in courts and prisons—and black people selling drugs can be obvious—but for me it's all about social deprivation. If you took away drug dealing you would literally have young black kids starving in the streets. They need the money.

      If the police want to find us, we are easily found. We are not in central London; we are living in these little urban pockets, living on top of each other in neglected estates. Drug dealing has spiraled out of all this. All the drug addicts live on the same estate as us, so it's easy to make money selling drugs to them.

      I got into dealing because my parents were drug dealers—it was my destiny to sell drugs. My dad wasn't around much. Mothers can teach you manners, but not how to be a man. We just went out on the streets and did anything we wanted because no one was going to say anything. We didn't care if we got caught and went to prison. We just did it again straight away—it was the only thing we knew.

      As well as the crack and heroin, I also sold cocaine powder to white party animals. No one from my estate could afford £100 [about $145] for a night out like they did.

      I still live on my estate, but I got out of the drug trade. I did A levels in prison and started university. Being at university, I know now what I did not know then: There is another way. It's a struggle, but there is another way.

      Some trafficked cocaine. Photo via US Federal Agency

      Former international cocaine trafficker

      If you see someone who has managed to afford a car from his earnings in a week, rather than over two years, people are going to go for the job that takes them a week to get the car.

      Yes, there is biased policing against black people, but they bring a lot of it upon themselves, with the dress code, the swagger on the streets. Maybe other ethnic groups are just more discreet, while we drive around in flashy cars. If you have all this bravado, you are putting yourself in the spotlight.

      With gangs it's all about street cred, it's all about reputation, and this is the downfall for a lot of these young guys. It backfires on them—they advertise what they are doing to the rest of the world, flaunting their wealth. Police are biased, but young black men have only got themselves to blame if they make themselves a moving target.

      Black culture is flamboyant, outgoing, loud, and some people can't accept that. If you live in a racist society and the system is against you, then don't make the system worse for yourself. If you get convicted for drug dealing, don't play the race card: You chose the wrong path when you got involved, so don't cry about it when you get caught.

      One of the problem is a lack of role models. Lots of the kids selling drugs have come from broken homes, where the father is not there. They need a male role model, and if they don't get that at home, they look elsewhere. But dealers do also come from good families—it's all up to individual choices. Everyone has got his or her own reason why he or she got involved in selling drugs.

      Criminologist specializing in ethnicity

      Most ethnic groups have found that, since moving to Britain, generations have worked their way up and out of poorer areas, and they end up doing better than their parents. But with Afro-Caribbeans, this tends not to happen. Why? Because we have suffered levels of discrimination unlike other groups. Now, after 9/11, the Muslim community is experiencing something approaching this level of discrimination.

      We have always had a fighting spirit against discrimination and social exclusion. In the 1980s, when unemployment among young black males where I lived on the Stonebridge Estate in Harlesden was 95 percent, we hustled, sold weed, cut hair. There was an informal economy.

      Then came the crack trade via Jamaica. Some young men were able to make lots of money, silly money, buying Lamborghinis, Porsches, and second homes in Jamaica. This came at the time of Thatcherism, when the messages were all about consumerism, looking after number one, that to be someone meant you had to have money. On some estates now there is a real lack of community, so people are more complacent.

      Now, for young black men who underachieve at school and want status and cash, selling crack and heroin is a shortcut. The key is that it's so easy for them to get involved in the drug trade. They know so many people involved—there are so many job opportunities.

      Culturally, young black people are included, but economically they are not. Selling crack will give you access to this world. Young Bangladeshi men buy into this less, because they are less absorbed into British culture.

      There are clear international links between black youth in the UK and Jamaican organized crime groups who source cocaine. But we can also find similar patterns with Pakistani youth in the UK and organized crime in Afghanistan or Turkish youth in north London and their links with organized crime groups in and from Turkey. Again, while social exclusion and accessibility to drugs are factors that apply to most ethnic groups involved in the drugs trade, the group most demonized and discriminated against are black youth.

      While young black men often face more challenges than other excluded groups—raising their likelihood to become involved in drug dealing—discriminatory practices within policing have a far greater effect on the disproportionate numbers of black young males who are arrested and convicted.

      Criminologist specializing in drug policing

      The key thing is that the proportions of black people in these figures are generated from the interaction between police decisions on whom to target and the underlying (and much greater) number of people who are involved in drug supply. If police officers have a view that young black men are more likely to be involved, then they will target young black men, and their figures will keep on telling them that young black men are the most likely to be involved in dealing. This is known as "statistical discrimination."

      It is impossible to know whether there are actually underlying differences in rates of offending. Given that young black men are more likely to be excluded from school, homeless, and unemployed, it would not be surprising if a larger proportion of them did turn to alternative ways of making cash, and the attractions of this may be reinforced if they see dealing being, as Barack Obama nearly said, 'the final destination' of the young, black man growing up with the experience of routine police attention. However, it is difficult to either prove this point or to make it without being accused of repeating the racially essentialist stereotypes that have been around for as long as drugs have been controlled.

      A plane, via which drugs are often trafficked. Photo by David Spinks via

      Former international cocaine trafficker

      In the mid 1990s, black dealers dominated the crack scene in London and Bristol—they didn't allow anyone else to sell it, and they have maintained control over the market. They don't import cocaine so much now, but those who do import it – such as the Colombians—sell it to the black dealers because they can get a higher price from black dealers because they sell it at high volume as crack.

      I've just spent a year in Wandsworth Prison, and there are lots of young black kids coming in for drug dealing. Most of them are in gangs from different areas, which have sprung up everywhere and replaced old crime families. They seem to be very much influenced by hip-hop and American culture. Drug dealing is seen as a cool career, a thing to do, like 50 Cent. I met black kids in there for small amounts of drugs, who said once they are known to police for selling drugs they get targeted like crazy.

      Barrister specializing in drug supply cases in south London

      Why are so many young black drug dealers going through the courts? I put it down to gang culture. The majority of the gangs in southeast London are black gangs, and they are often involved in selling drugs. A lot of the boys I see come from single parent backgrounds; their father is abroad or in jail. There is a lot of poverty there. Most of them are runners for their bosses, who are black, but the people above them turn out to be proper gangsters, older men, often white, who source drugs from abroad but don't get their hands dirty.

      A lot of those going through the courts are teenagers, uneducated, very rebellious against society. They don't go to school, though there is the odd university-educated guy. They do it for huge financial reward—up to £1,000 [$1,400] a week.

      One recent case I've just finished defending involved a gang of young black men from a south London estate who used an insider at an estate agent to set up four flats where they stored 70 percent pure cocaine, cut it up, and put it in bags for sale. In one flat the police raided in Kensington the officers found £66,000 [$95,000] in cash, in another they found £20,000 [$28,000]. The dealers sold it on the streets of Bedford, Norwich, Ipswich, and Luton, where they rented out hub flats to sell from.

      Criminologist specializing in the drug trade

      My research has shown that black dealers traveling out of London to sell crack and heroin in less ethnically-mixed areas are highly visible to the police. So a lot of "London" drug dealers are being arrested outside of London. In many of the (predominantly white) home counties and towns and cities commutable from London, I know the police there simply look out for black commuting drug dealers.

      It might very well be that many of the low-level black dealers are relatively vulnerable young people and that gangs force or use these young people to sell. Vulnerable and excluded teenagers in London—more likely to be black than white, proportionately—are more likely to become involved in drug supply than those with better life chances.

      These statistics are not representative of the entire drug market, but reflect the part of the market most visible to law enforcement, the heroin and crack trade. So non-black dealers are more heavily involved in drug selling, but are far less visible.

      Follow VICE's Narcomania series on Twitter.

      Topics: drugs, drug dealing, drug convictions, Narcomania, exclusive, institutional racism, ethnicity, London, UK, Crime


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